Human resource management, sensemaking

Do we need to engage?

Article first published as Do We Need to Engage? on Technorati.

In the middle of a long recession, it does not come as a surprise that worker engagement is at its all time low. What surprises is that engagement is moving from being a concern just for Human resources leaders to filling the agenda of top managers.

In the UK, the largest businesses are taking action to promote revitalizing engagement and appear to be backed by the British government. Brian Groom, the Business and Employment editor at Financial Timesreports that UK’s largest businesses are warning in an open letter that lack of engagement is affecting two thirds of the labor force.

This hype, however, might be off target. A recent article on the journal ‘New technology, work, and employment’ by Jean Cushen and Paul Thompson provides a very realistic description of how many management practices targeting engagement even in high tech companies are not rooted in reality. They attempt to portray a world that is far from the one people experience every day – and by doing this fail to realize that employees are adults, not children to be lured into a fantasy park.

The authors conducted an in-depth analysis of the Irish branch of a multinational corporation operating in the high tech industry to find that “contrary to mainstream and critical scholarship, skilled technical workers in knowledge-intensive firms can be uncommitted, angry and high performing at the same time.”

Their account is rich in description of the effort put by the company to provide an engaging context, while failing to realize to what extent they were forcing employees to cope with practices and approaches they did not believe in. As Cushen and Thompson conclude:

“They had the brand, vision and extensive communication mechanisms; the bundles of interrelated, best practices; and an HR department at the core of strategy and operations. Yet the outcome was skepticism and often barely disguised contempt from the kind of employees we are told are particularly open to the charms of soft, culture-led practices. Even under ‘textbook’ circumstances, these knowledge workers’ commitment to and engagement with the company was low and there was no evidence that HR was successful in persuading employees to identify with or ‘live’ the brand.” (Cushen & Thompson, 2012: p. 89)

The interesting consequence is that once again many management practices aimed at promoting engagement fail to see that people appear to be able to self-engage, and far from embracing strongly supported initiatives that fail to recognize this, they can perform well notwithstanding the skepticism they share. Management should recognize that many of these practices are rooted in the past, and when moved into knowledge-intensive contexts create counterintuitive results. As supporters of the Self-determination theory of motivation by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester affirm, promoting engagement could prove itself harder than expected if managers and consultant fail to give up the idea that it is all about communication, with no substance.


The three utmost questions before talking engagement

Everybody is talking engagement. Consultants, experts, researchers, corporate managers struggle to provide the final recipes to have your troops up to the fight with a committed smile on their faces. The next Holy Graal is hidden and sought after by everybody.

And this comes as no surprise! As companies struggle through an unprecedented crisis in the markets, they sense an increasing dissatisfaction among their ranks.

Cover of "Ahead of the Curve: Two Years a...

Cover via Amazon

While the eighties and nineties left us with the bright image of the successful business executive, and a dismaying picture of public government, in the last ten years all our beliefs have crumbled down crisis after crisis: big banks, big corporates, and countries ruled by new public management approaches running amok, and being torn into pieces.

It would be useful to take off the shelf Philip Delves Broughton’s Ahead of the curve with his thoughtful criticism of the MBA model and the hidden assumptions on what really counts by organizers, faculties, and participants. But once you read it, you are left with the sad feeling that we are all trapped into a herd behavior. So nothing can be done, unless stepping out of it all?

I bet something can (and as far as I am concerned SHOULD) be done. It centers around the courage to ask yourself as management practitioners three questions, and be fair in answering them.

1. Why should anybody engage into what we are doing?

Engagement is not created from outside, it is not hidden in the next incentive formula or in an esoteric psychological model. Nowhere can those who claim to be measuring it find a way of raising it. It is one of the greatest pleasure of our search for meaning as human beings. It is what defines our destiny and identity, by calling all our best energy into action. So beforehand you must realize that it is not straightforward to believe that if you are paid for doing something this would mean that something matters so much to you. I find it so annoying when corporate leaders look upon their troops and complain about their unwillingness to be like themselves. It probably sounds like what noblemen and the monarchy would do in France right before the French revolution. It conveys the idea of so much disdain for humanity and its inherent diversity. So before talking engagement, please, realize people are different from you, and look openly to the true reason for which you call them to commit.

2. Is engagement worth the expected results?

In an era where it seems that guts count more than competency, it comes as no surprise that any problem is always referred to bad execution. It is not uncommon to listen to a much admired CEO justify his many zeroes salary by affirming he sleeps only 4 hour by night (could it be the reason of so many bad decisions on his side?). Once again it is more self-assuring to look at your results and conclude it is people not being committed and engaged the ones to be blamed. But don’t we realize corporate organizations are but means to  organize collective activities? So is it really necessary to extract all and any drop of sweat and dedication from anybody? Is this human after all? Is it worthy for you filthy ‘everything-should-be-converted-into-money’ corporate suits? Isn’t it true that a well managed company does not need extraordinary people and extraordinary efforts and engagement? So, why don’t you go back to basic and stop blaming people? Maybe it helps, after all.

3. What if in the end the real issue is letting people engage instead of forcing them to engage?

The ambiguity of management practice is unbelievable. Whenever I try to explain it to laymen who don’t deal with business and management, I found myself as if on a quagmire. Management prescribes autonomy, and requires control. Isn’t it curious if we think of it with the adequate detachment? And then we go on with extremely silly debates that fascinate the adepts of this cult on whether it is art or science. Oh boy, I could not resist a great laugh on it all… Management is like religion. Great to believe in because of its promises, but always to be kept in its place when we extend it onto other people’s lives. Management is inherently a power act on somebody’s else lives, it is a tool to reinforce authority, it is a camouflage for the justification of unresolved differences in society, after the diffusion of democracy across the world. It comes as no surprise if you read outside the restricted boundaries of management orthodoxy. Michael Burawoy in his Manufacturing consent had it all. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, Taylorism was god, albeit with a small ‘g’. Management therefore acts to legitimate its existence and by doing so exerts a powerful influence, that many times can inhibit engagement and restrain people from feeling really engaged.

So, you might have strong reactions to my comments. I can anticipate some:

  • You are a f*** marxist
  • Somebody has to do it, people need to be coordinated
  • You know, at times people are not willing to work, so you need to put pressure on them
  • It is definitely true if I think of my colleagues, but I am different
  • You might be true, but so what?

The list could grow longer. let me take a further bit of your time to address the last reaction. So what? I think the ‘so what?’ is not to be asked to me, but it is your (our) first responsibility if you (we) believe that management has to behave rationally. If only 10% of what I wrote could be true, it would be worth trying to change our approach. We do not manage people, we take decisions that influence people through patterns we are only starting to comprehend. I understand it is better to hold firm beliefs, which are undoubtedly untrue, than face the reality of not knowing how we impact them. However, in a time where ethic, social responsibility, and honesty flourish on everybody’s lips, it would be worthwhile to start changing our assumptions and our behaviors and recognize that:

  1. people need not be engaged, they do it by themselves
  2. to be engaged they need to be freed from all the obstacles we create
  3. a good start would be to design more rational processes and procedures that respect their needs
  4. engagement is a concept larger than what we ask at work, so let’s be satisfied with them executing with passion
  5. and please, don’t overemphasize its importance, we are talking about business organizations after all, not the meaning of all our kind!